By Neeraj Aggarwal and Pallavi Jain, Jun 03, 2021 16:00
Project 2061 was a long-term project initiated in 1985 to reform education in science, technology and math. The name was inspired by Comet Halley, which happened to be in the earth’s vicinity in 1985. It is said that the project director often joked that it would take that long (76 years) to turn the massive ship of education around because of the tremendous inertia in the system.
Fast forward to 2021. We know the writing on the wall — technology is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, organisations that are thriving are the ones quickest to adapt and so on. But here is the question — has our tech education kept pace with this change? Are we preparing Gen Z to shape this future, responsibly?
We need to hit refresh on our tech education, now. Here are three areas which need a refresh.
First, disciplines of the future.
Standalone engineering departments are steeped in history. Civil engineering is among the oldest formal engineering disciplines and reflects the start of construction of roads, bridges and cities. Mechanical and chemical engineering emerged in their current form around the Industrial Revolution. Computer engineering came later. The next century is being defined by the advent of new technologies. The car of yesteryears was primarily a mechanical device, but the car of the future will be electric, autonomous and connected.
The future of education will be interdisciplinary. The siloed degrees of the past need to give way to interdisciplinary programmes. For example, robotics and cyber-physical systems will shape the factories of the future. Future health care will be at the intersection of biosciences, computing and engineering. It is time for us to embrace cutting-edge interdisciplinary programmes in mainstream education.
Why is this important? This brings us to the second area — solving grand challenges.
We are faced with perceptible grand challenges every day — unclean air, cyber insecurity, global pandemics and more. These challenges affect the world at large and are even more pertinent to India. The raison d’être of engineers has been to create solutions for people.
However, engineers identify themselves not by solutions, but by narrow disciplinary toolkits which risk irrelevance over time.
What if every researcher and student identified themselves less with a discipline (“I am an X engineer”) and more with a problem? For example — “I am working on affordable and clean energy access for every person” or “I am working on making our cyberspace safe”. What if each of the 1.2 million engineers graduating every year in India took on a real problem for industry or society?
That mindset to solve problems, supported by a multidisciplinary education combining advanced technology with its estranged cousins — humanities, design and business — can catalyse the emergence of solutions. The ancient Takshashila University, which was home to some of the greatest Indian scholars such as Panini, Charaka and Chanakya, was multidisciplinary.
What kind of students would lead this change? And that is the third area of focus — identifying future tech leaders.
We need tech leaders who are not only intellectually strong, but also passionate, creative, entrepreneurial and socially conscious. However, if our higher education institutions anchor disproportionately on test-oriented intelligence, our high school students will learn to view their self-worth through the same lens. Tech universities of the future need to have holistic selections to signal that they value not only intellectual quotient, but are also interested in what drives a student, what the student has built, what the student wants to solve. This will have a great impact on adolescent life by replacing pressure with more purpose and joy.
This brings us to the final point — whose responsibility is it to execute this? Building high quality universities was once seen as the prerogative of either the government or a few select philanthropists.
Open architecture has shown a way for diverse people anywhere to be able to contribute to a mission. This idea is making its way into how greenfield universities are being set up in India and existing institutions are evolving.
A wide variety of people can make meaningful contributions to the mission — scientists and educators can help students imbibe a research mindset early on, industry can provide relevant problems to work on, entrepreneurs can show students how to make solutions viable, existing premier institutions can share intellectual strength with new-age institutions, philanthropists globally can contribute funds towards the mission.
It is said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. We need all hands on deck to invent the future we want to wake up to, without waiting for the next sighting of Comet Halley to get our act together.
(Neeraj Aggarwal is chairman-Asia Pacific, Boston Consulting Group, and founder and trustee of the upcoming Plaksha University. Pallavi Jain is a consultant, Boston Consulting Group and director, strategy and programmes, Plaksha. The views expressed are personal.)